Sunday, April 12, 2009

Erik's Random Music Observations

Stealing this from Trend, but of course these are more essays than short posts. I love to pontificate, what can I say.

1. Last week, I went out and a saw band called Blind Pilot. They had a big buzz coming off them at SXSW and they were playing in Austin again, so I thought I'd check it out. This is a band with some talent. A lot of different instrumentation going on, including vibraphones, banjo, and trumpet, along with your traditional rock instruments. Some of the songs were pretty good. The hipsters were loving it.

However, most of the songs were the same midtempo stuff that a lot of highly acclaimed bands are getting away with today. I don't know if there is some anti-rocking out movement within indie music that I'm unaware of, but I don't think it's all that healthy. Especially in live shows, bands need to change the tempo. Otherwise the songs all start sounding the same. I'm indicting some of the real indie darlings here. Neko Case for instance. Or Calexico, which really should be the greatest backing band in the world. These people have great talent, but ultimately, the songs start blending together. If you are going to sing these midtempo songs, I think you need some really special about your style. Iron & Wine continues to expand their sound. Will Oldham's songs are just so freaking weird that it works. Plus his live shows do often rock. But too often, I am getting bored. Though I'm sure I'll get the new Neko Case album anyway and will be frustrated by it.

In a related note, the little review of Blind Pilot I read that made me interested suggested that they were "twangy." The only way that adjective describes them is if you think anything with a banjo is twangy. Lazy writing.

2. The other day I watched the Arcade Fire performance for Austin City Limits. That was pretty sick. There was a lot going on up there, 2 violinists, horn section, people switching instruments. A lot of noise was being made. It was very cool. It did make me think though of how indie music has changed over the last 10-15 years. The days of some dude walking up on stage with ripped jeans and a guitar and playing really loud have passed. The days of orchestration, song cycles, concept albums, and complex instrumentation are in. Is this a good thing? I'm always sympathetic with high-concept rock music so I like it. And a lot of the music of the early and mid 90s that was popular in the indie scene was actually really bad, played by people who could barely handle their instruments. So I am really into these newer bands like Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens who are pushing envelopes, but I can see the day in the not distant future when a return to kick-ass simplicity is going to be vogue.

3. When June Carter died, a lot of people suggested that it was unfair for her to sacrifice the prime years of her career to support Johnny Cash and that she might have been the greater talent. The first half of this statement is unequivocally true; supporting that crazy motherfucker was a full time job. But as for the second half, I don't know. Have these people heard June Carter's work? She had her talents for sure. She had a knack for the amusing song and she was a direct connection to the roots of country music. But she also couldn't sing. And a lot of her songs are really bad. Maybe there's some material out there I haven't heard, but the idea of June as one of the lost greats of country music doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

4. The folk-country singer Tom Russell has a blog. A lot of it is his cranky musings. And he is a cranky guy to be sure, although he's also one of the nation's greatest living songwriters. Here is an interesting post about listening to the new indie singer-songwriters people fawn over. Russell responds: "the internet opened up world music to younger artists, and they draw from all influences: Haitian, West African, Mariachi, Flamenco, Ska, folk, blues…etc. They concoct their own hybrid sound. It's fresh. But where were the songs? Where is the core of it all?"

I think I know what he means. I've certainly wondered where the songs are from time to time. Where is the connection to place? Where are the stories? Where is the narrative? These are great bands with a great sound. But the songs are so internal. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's also sad that American music has lost its place. That's one great thing about Sufjan Stevens--his Michigan and Illinois albums are set in place in ways that virtually nobody does today. I suppose Calexico sings of the border to a certain extent but the sound is much more meaningful to place than the lyrics. American lyrical music has been firmly rooted to place until the last 15 years--Tin Pan Alley and New York City, Bluegrass and Appalachia, Country and the South, Blues and the Delta or the northern city, Hair Metal and Los Angeles, Grunge and the Pacific Northwest. Where is the connection to place now, either in song or in music?

Looking at Austin's evolution brings this home. Austin became a music capital because it was the heart of Texas. Willie, Waylon, Billy Jo, Townes, the Flatlanders, dozens of Texas musicians flocked here during the 1960s and 70s. They were Texas to the core. Some of these people are still around. And a few others have followed them (Dale Watson, Wayne Hancock, James McMurtry). But Austin is now a national capital of music because it's a place bands from around the nation can go and make it big. There is nothing Texas about the Austin music scene now except for the heat and the history. What is the difference between Austin, Portland, and Brooklyn? None that I can see. All three places are full of people who aren't from there and who move between the cities like a never-ending rotating triangle. That's fine and I'm glad Austin is what it is and that I can live near it. But that the Texan identity of the place is dying a little more everyday is a real musical tragedy.

5. The albums I have listened to so far today are:

Bill Frisell, Good Dog Happy Man
Gang of Four, Entertainment
George Jones, The Best of George Jones Disc 1
Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat
Smog, A River Ain't Too Much to Love
Rashied Ali, New Directions in Modern Music

Make of it what you will.

6. Finally, a song for the day. With Rush Limbaugh the head of the Republican Party, I am reminded of the great and unknown Buddy Tabor's "Three Strikes You're Out." I've talked about Tabor before; a housepainter in Juneau, he writes probably the most powerful songs inLink American folk music today. However, he does little to promote himself. You can't even buy most of his albums online. The few songs of his available online are here, check them out. Thanks to a friend who lived near there for several years, I've acquired most of his albums, but with that friend gone, who knows if I'll ever be able to buy Tabor's new material.

Anyway, here's the lyrics to "Three Strikes You're Out"

"Oh Limbaugh's out of rehab
And he got stoned again
Snorting Oxycontin
It was his closest friend
He'd crush up those little pills
Shove them up his nose
That's why they call him Rush
And now at last you know

They saw the laws are equal
But you know that's a lie
Cause if you're rich and white
The courts will always let it slide
But if you're poor and stoned
Then jail will be your home
So unless you're Betty Ford
Better leave those drugs alone

When Rush would hit the airwaves
Cruetly was his game
He said he didn't care when
Kurt Cobain blew out his brains
Coz Cobain was an addict
The dregs of society
Now the tables turned
And Rush it seems needs our sympathy


When Rush has finally OD'd
What will the dittos do?
They'll have to try to think for themselves
I know it's hard to do
We've all got pain and sorrow
That is our common bond
So instead of hate, lend a helping hand
Help the weak ones on